Delivering Practical Subjects Remotely

Background

I’ve been working with our Archaeology department to support them to continue delivery, where possible, of teaching during lock down. This has ranged from complete remote teaching to hybrid and was asked to look at how we could provide virtual lab and fieldwork during lockdown.

Our institution (The University of Sheffield) has some useful guidance on both virtual lab work and virtual fieldwork.

For fieldwork, this includes some advice on using 360 cameras to create 360 tours of an area as well as guidance on using RoundMe and ArcGIS StoryMaps. The 360 content can be combined with online quizzes, commentary or narration as audio or video.

For lab work this includes considering what kind of activity is required to meet a learning outcome so as to decide whether it can be asynchronous (pre-recorded video) or synchronous (live stream). More in our institution’s guidance on video in practical activities here. Activity could also be a mixture of the two so a pre-recorded video of an experiment to watch followed by a live discussion (flipped learning).

The Benefits of Asynchronous Content

The benefits of asynchronous (pre-recorded) video are that it allows flexibility in accessing the learning content (useful for students in other time zones or with other commitments), mistakes can be edited and multiple takes or camera angles can be used.

Consider the Learning Outcome and Activity

As mentioned above, for both of these scenarios its important to consider the context before making a decision about what kind of learning activity and content is best.

For fieldwork it’s important to be clear about whether the learning outcome means that the location is the object of study or whether the location is a context where learning activities are taking place. It’s also important to break down the activities into pre-trip, during the trip and post trip.

Technical Considerations

It’s also important to note here that the pre-recording of video content is preferable to live streaming for the majority of teaching scenarios due to latency (slow feed from the camera to laptop) and connection issues (bluetooth and wifi / data) which will negatively impact the quality of the experience for students.

However, it is recognised that there may be occasions when live streaming is required in the field or lab. On these occasions – a HDMI video capture card connection to a laptop is most straightforward with the addition of a mobile data connection from the laptop (via pairing with a mobile for data or using a data dongle with good data coverage) for fieldwork.

Live Streaming & Video Conferencing Solutions

In the lab, if only up to two cameras are required Blackboard Collaborate Ultra provides a simple solution. You can select a main camera and then also select a second camera to share content. This means you can use a built in web cam as your first camera (or any other web cam or camera with a clean HDMI feed via a capture card) and any webcam or camera with a clean HDMI feed via a video capture card as the second camera. This allows for some flexibility in presenting whilst giving a measure of simplicity if you are already familiar with Blackboard Collaborate Ultra.

When more than two cameras are required (such as in our lab work in Archaeology) we found a solution after talking to our Biomedical Science department. This involves using OBS Studio and multiple camera inputs for presenter, demonstrations on the bench and close ups of pottery, bone fragments etc. Each camera connects via a virtual capture card and becomes a source in OBS. This, in turn becomes a single camera feed into either Blackboard Collaborate Ultra or Google Meet via the OBS studio Virtual Camera output.

The Blackboard Collaborate Ultra solution is far simpler in practice to operate but the OBS set up allows more camera inputs (including remote cameras which I’ll get to in a moment).

The OBS set up really requires two staff members to operate as one will need to operate cameras and OBS scene switches and one to just focus on presenting the session. Therefore, training and a clear plan for a session is required when using OBS.

Live Streaming Directly from Camera – Some Solutions

Taking things a step further, I was interested in seeing if I could live stream directly from two cameras I have available. One is the Sony PXW-X70 and the other is a Go Pro Hero Black 8.

This was purely experimental and I’m not suggesting this a method of teaching remotely as asynchronous content (as discussed above) is usually the best method of relaying content to students. Also, by streaming directly from a camera you throw extra technical complications into the mix and more to go wrong with latency issues and reliability of connection.

Sony PXW-X70

I tested this camera which has live stream capabilities and mobile data / wifi connection via both wifi and the mobile data on my iPhone 11 as a hotspot. Do bear in mind that data may be affected by building structures, landscape features etc. There may be places where reception is poor or non-existent.

I found this helpful video which I used to set everything up.

It relies on a good wifi or data connection. I set up a stream from the camera via UDP  (Stream udp://@:1234 or port number) which was then picked up by VLC Player and input as a VLC video source in OBS (Note: VLC has to be closed for it to show up).

Tip: If the execute option for live stream on the camera is greyed out – change to 720 and XAVC HD (don’t forget to change back to AVCHD for recording after)

Possible Issues

  • Latency an issue and loss of live stream feed when data fails.
  • Audio and video may be out of sync due to latency issues.

Go Pro Hero 8

Live Streaming via Go Pro App (URL)

Go Pro live streaming to a Go Pro URL is possible using Go Pro account (£49.99 a year / £4.99 a month – cancel at any time)

It requires an IOS / Android App (the Go Pro App) on smart phone or iPad running iPadOS 13.0 or later and a Bluetooth connection between the camera and phone / iPad. Live streaming only works on Go Pro 7 and up.

I used the phone’s mobile data to stream to the link at Go Pro. Bear in mind that this is not a private link and can be shared. This handy guide from Restream explains how to set it all up.

However, this feed can be sent to OBS studio (and then Google Meet / BBCU as a virtual camera) as a media source which allows the stream to be kept private. Only those attending the Google Meet or Blackboard Collaborate session will have access to the stream.

Possible Issues

  • Latency an issue with the Go Pro and loss of live stream feed when either wifi / bluetooth fails.
  • Audio and video may be out of sync due to latency issues.
  • When live streaming with the Go Pro – there is no control for zooming.
  • Battery power of Go Pro may be an issue for longer streams